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'Ballplayer' Johnson is manager's MVP

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


DETROIT -- There's no question Russ Johnson has been a valuable member of the Rays.

Manager Hal McRae says the scrappy second baseman has been the most valuable.

"He's the MVP," McRae said. "He went from the fifth second baseman to utility player to pinch-hitter to MVP of the ballclub in two weeks.

"He has some energy and we recognized that right away, and that he was a ballplayer. But I never thought of him as what he's been. He's saved runs, he's knocked in runs, he's knocked in big runs, he's given us good at-bats in key situations, played situational baseball.

"He's done it all. He's been our best player."

Johnson is hitting .344, which should be enough for a place in the league's top 10, and is second on the team with 11 RBI and three homers. Not bad for a player who battled to make the team as a utilityman and took over the second-base job after the Rays parted ways with Bobby Smith six games into the season.

Johnson continued to contribute Saturday, singling to extend his career-high hitting streak to 11 games and hustling to score from first on a single to center that was misplayed by Detroit centerfielder Juan Encarnacion.

"He's a ballplayer," McRae said.

ALVAREZ OKAY: Wilson Alvarez made a second start in extended spring training play, allowing one run on four hits in three innings against the Yankees in St. Petersburg. Alvarez struck out one and walked three while throwing 56 pitches. "I felt fine, and that's why I was rushing my pitches," he said.

I AM THIRD: In an effort to increase production against a left-handed starter, McRae tinkered with his lineup, splitting lefties Fred McGriff and Ben Grieve by moving McGriff up to third and dropping right-hander Greg Vaughn into the cleanup spot.

He also moved Vinny Castilla back up to sixth, with Jose Guillen dropping to seventh, and hinted there could be other changes in the order if the Rays continue to scrap for runs.

"I'm searching for a hot hitter in the middle," McRae said.

CATCHING UP: Mike DiFelice met with McRae before the game to discuss playing time, but McRae, who acknowledged he didn't communicate his plans to DiFelice, will stick with a plan that has John Flaherty catching five games a week and DiFelice working the other one or two. "I like to have a No. 1 catcher, and I like him to provide some leadership," McRae said.

JOSE CAN YOU SEE?: Guillen is struggling, hitting .212 overall and 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position, but McRae plans to let him work through it, valuing his defensive contributions in rightfield. "He's trying to play his way out of the lineup," McRae cracked, "but I'm not going to let him."

NUMBERS GAME: With Matt Perisho on the mound for Detroit, the Rays improved to 33-76 in games started by left-handed pitchers. ... The Rays have allowed 30 unearned runs on the season and made a major-league high 30 errors. ... Vaughn is in a 1-for-14 slump. ... The Rays are 4-6 under McRae; they were 4-10 under Larry Rothschild. ... With wins today and Monday, the Rays would avoid making this their losingest April. They won nine games in April 2000.

The game

WHERE: Comerica Park.

TV/RADIO: Ch. 10; WFLA-AM 970, WLCC-AM 760 (Spanish).

2001 SCHEDULE VS. TIGERS:

April 27 at Detroit: 2-4 L

April 28 at Detroit: 7-3 W

April 29 at Detroit, 1:05 p.m.

May 18 at Tropicana Field

May 19 at Tropicana Field

May 20 at Tropicana Field

WEATHER FORECAST: Mostly sunny with a high in the mid to upper 60s.

The pitchers

ALBIE LOPEZ: Lopez leads the AL with a 1.66 ERA, has the most innings since the last All-Star break (1481/3) of any AL pitcher and has worked seven or more innings in all five starts this season. He is 4-0 with a 3.02 ERA in 17 appearances (four starts) against the Tigers.

JEFF WEAVER: Weaver, Detroit's opening-day starter, is on a three-game losing streak, having been roughed up by the Orioles, White Sox and Indians. He has pitched better during the day, however, with a 1.69 ERA. Weaver is 1-4 with a 5.93 ERA in five starts against the Rays.

You don't say

It's not every day that 33-year-old catchers score from first base, so naturally, John Flaherty's fourth-inning accomplishment Saturday did not go unnoticed by his teammates. "They said I was doing pretty good, and when I came around third it was like a stiff breeze stood me up," Flaherty said.

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